This day always holds dread and portent for me as it marks the day in my childhood when my best friend, Jonathan, was killed; yet there is another story of attachment and loss that also clusters around this day in the watery tumult of my psyche.
It all goes back to high school—junior year honors English. Ellen was in my class and of course I thought she was cute. I sat one row over and one seat back, and thus my year was spent stealing glances at her as my mind drifted in and out, but mostly away, from Jude the Obscure.
The very last week of class the teacher invited us all to her house and on the way out, with summer stretched endlessly before me, I somehow found the courage to ask Ellen out on a date and was elated and shocked when she said yes. I had asked out girls before, and had a good long history of “no” (particularly humiliating was my freshman year honors English fail with the girl who sat in front of me as my mind wandered away from the likes of Pride and Prejudice—I could simply not persuade that girl, a full head taller than me, to go on a date where we would ride our bikes). But in 1977 I had a license to drive, and so Ellen would be picked up in a car.
We went to the movies at a theater called “Old Orchard.” It was so far from being an orchard that only now do I grasp that the word had another meaning related to trees and fruit—perhaps forbidden fruit. The movie showing that weekend was Peter Benchley’s The Deep. I cannot remember what it was about, mostly because it wasn’t about anything other than Jacqueline Bisset in a wet t-shirt.
Sitting there in the flickering dark, I mustered up all the courage in the world and slipped my arm around Ellen’s shoulder. With my arm around a pretty girl, my mind plunged into despair and confusion as I realized the strange contrast of being alive and venturing forward into uncharted but alluring waters on the very calendar day that my not yet all that long-lost friend had vanished from my world.
Jonathan had died, in part, because he chose not to go to tennis camp with me because he was invited to a boy-girl party that he didn’t want to miss, a party I was not invited to. He was walking his bike across an intersection when a motorcycle ran a red light and entangled with the bike he was straddling. I always thought that if he had been playing tennis with me, he would not have been at that intersection that that terrible moment. We parted ways over girls for that weekend, but we were never to meet again.
Ellen and I had a good run that summer of ‘77. She was more than a bit of a princess who only once told me that she loved me—in a scream of delight when I got Fleetwood Mac tickets. Her family had a sailboat and her older brother took us, along with his own girlfriend, out on the lake once and I didn’t get sick (a personal triumph). The three of them sang at the top of their lungs on that ride back home down Lake Shore Drive on a soft summer night, windows open, hair flying everywhere, me smiling and wishing I wasn’t too shy to sing along with them although I was, even with the wind, sound and stars enveloping us all in a blur of buzzing life spirit.
Just as school was set to start, another friend of mine with whom I’d grown close asked Ellen to the first dance of the year and alas she said yes. They fizzled fast, but obviously there was a strain after that in Ellen’s and my friendship and so we just sort of avoided each other. It had never been more than like and not love; we were young and so none of it really mattered all that much.
A couple of years later it turned out that Ellen and I were going to the same college, but it was a big place and we lived in separate dorms and never saw each other. And thus I was shocked to run into her one freezing winter’s day during sophomore year when I was crossing an icy bridge in a sleet storm and came upon her standing in the middle of the bridge with a sign expressing a politically correct position on an important issue.
I don’t think we had spoken in a couple of years and as I took her in, I saw that from her slightly broken out skin to her Birkenstocks she had utterly transformed. I looked into her eyes that, although certainly still pretty, held a depth and softness I had not seen before; perhaps I was just projecting, but naïve as I was at nineteen, I was sure that her wordless gaze said many things: it said that she was sorry, even for the small betrayal, and that she was sorry that she had been a shallow kid but that now she cared about the world and about bigger things, her eyes said that she was growing up—and beautifully. There was nothing romantic in our moment on that bridge, only warmth and friendship. Maybe it was a tiny bit condescending to think it, but I felt oddly proud of her. Little could I have guessed that this would be the last time I would ever see her.
It was New Year’s Eve and I was walking into the Old Orchard Theater once again, to see a film with that same friend who had once asked Ellen out in high school. He stopped in the lobby to call his house for some reason. He hung up the pay phone and turned to me, ashen. Ellen had been killed that very day, in a car accident out in California… decapitated, he said.
Ellen has been strongly on my mind these final days of this year of daily blogging. Jonathan’s death has been central to my life, but Ellen is also an important spirit who informs my experience of the world. I never really knew her family, only met her mom a couple of times and never her dad. Yet I think of how much they must have suffered, and I wonder how life makes sense at all when something like this happens to one’s child.
I have seen Jonathan’s parents, holocaust survivors in their own right, soldier on, love, live, grandparent and inspire me to be as strong and compassionate as I can manage. Marcel practiced medicine for many years and it was on his lips that I first heard of Carl Jung—said in earnest response to a philosophical question I had posed to him in the wake of his son’s death, sitting his book-lined study together, me flipping through an old photo book about Kafka’s Prague (Marcel’s home town). I dreamed a couple of years ago of Gita and Marcel, dancing by a pool in a summer dusk, transported to the prime of their young love—and the dream filled me with hope and also with tears when I awoke.
I find yet another layer of love and hope for a safe future for all of our children falling diaphanously over these words as on this very day my older son attended his first driver’s ed class, fast passing mile-markers like the first taste of ice cream, the first day of kindergarten, the first day of middle school all whirring by. Only now I’m not to shy to sing along with everyone in the car.
Since all kids are all our collective children, my aim with this post is to do a sort of virtual reach-out, via forces beyond my consciousness, to conjure the love of the group for all parents everywhere who have faced the very worst that life can dish out, and to honor the spirits of all the children who may be gone but never forgotten, whose spirits, for all we know, urge us toward a greater, softer and more collective love.